Washington scandal reveals politics behind European Jewish memorials

A small government agency for preserving European historical sites has been accused of criminal malfeasance, roiling Jewish community officials who say the agency has played a critical role in memorializing Europe’s Jewish past.

The controversy surrounding the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad offers a glimpse into the workings of influence in the capital and reveals how the focus in Washington on lost Jewish heritage at times stirs resentment among non-Jewish Americans of European descent.

Some are concerned that the controversy could roll back recent strides in getting European nations to confront and memorialize their role in the decimation of European Jewry.

“A lot of sites important to different parts of the Jewish community would not continue to be in existence if not for the commission,” said Mark Levin, who directs the National Conference Supporting Eurasian Jewry, a body that advocates for Jews in many of the countries where the agency has helped set up memorials.

Most wounding for the heritage commission and its defenders was a statement that Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, released to The New York Times.

“Established with the best of intentions to memorialize the horrors of 20th-century genocides, the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad did little to accomplish that goal but was instead used to enrich a lobbyist,” Johnson told the Times.

That lobbyist is Jeffrey Farrow, the heritage commission’s part-time executive director, who made a salary of $104,000 while also collecting fees for representing foreign governments, according to the Times.

Ezra Friedlander, a New York-based publicist who organized an event this year on Capitol Hill lauding the agency on its 30th anniversary, said he was taken aback when he read Johnson’s statement.

“The cemetery where my family was buried, for many decades following World War II it was almost impossible to pay respects,” Friedlander said, referring to the burial ground of the Liska Hasidic dynasty in Hungary. “As a result of the commission it was restored to pristine conditions. Today there are literally thousands of people praying and paying firsthand respects.”

William Daroff, a former member of the heritage commission, said the agency’s importance was in lending U.S. government heft to efforts to persuade European governments to back preservation projects and memorials.

“Congress has decided that it’s important for America’s heritage to be preserved, and if the U.S. didn’t step in, this piece of history would be lost,” said Daroff, the Washington director for the Jewish Federations of North America.

Private donors often join European governments in paying for the projects; the agency’s $644,000 government budget goes to administrative costs. Just under a sixth of the budget is for Farrow’s salary.

An official who works for Johnson’s committee told JTA that Johnson may have overstated the heritage commission’s lack of accomplishment to the Times, but that its glory days had passed. The agency has completed little recently, said the official, who spoke anonymously, emphasizing that Johnson did not want to end the agency but to reform it.

The heritage commission’s website is heavy with accounts of restorations and memorials completed in the 2000s, but lists only a few projects this decade. An agency official emailed to JTA information about 20 recent projects, many not appearing on the website.

In his statement, dated Aug. 10, Johnson cited a 2013 report on the heritage commission by the inspector general of the General Services Administration, calling it “a bizarre tale in which an obscure federal agency tasked with making lists of cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe morphed into the taxpayer-funded lobbying offices of an extravagantly-paid lobbyist,” referring to Farrow.

In addition to directing the heritage commission, Farrow has also registered as a foreign agent for Palau, a tiny Pacific Island nation that receives funding from the U.S. government, and he has lobbied on behalf of Puerto Rico.

The seeming duality of the role – a government official using government offices to rake in big bucks as a lobbyist – earned Farrow the rogue’s treatment in the Times.

“Mr. Farrow was at once a federal government bureaucrat and lobbyist,” the Times story said. “The revolving door did not even have to spin.” Farrow did not reply to a request for comment.

Lesley Weiss, the heritage commission’s chairwoman – and the deputy director at the National Conference Supporting Eurasian Jewry — this week rebutted some of the charges.

Weiss, who is not paid for her role at the agency, said in a letter to Johnson that Farrow’s dual status is par for the course in Washington, particularly for a small agency able to pay for only one full-time staffer.

“For most of its existence, the commission has operated only by employing the services of various part-time and full-time contractors,” she said.

Johnson said in his letter that Farrow ran his lobbying practice out of the heritage commission’s office – among a litany of charges that he says may amount to “serious crimes.”

Weiss in her response denied that Farrow mixed lobbying with his heritage commission work. The Times, which obtained an unredacted copy of the General Services Administration’s inspector general’s report, said that although Farrow may have conducted lobbying business from the agency’s office, he used a separate laptop computer and cellphone, and the inspector general said “there was insufficient evidence to show any violation by Mr. Farrow.”

The General Services Administration’s Office of Inspector General sent JTA a copy of its 2013 report, but it was almost entirely redacted. That inquiry is closed, but a separate probe by the Office of the Special Counsel reportedly remains open. A spokesman for the special counsel office refused to comment.

Officials close to the heritage commission said that people like Farrow are useful precisely because of the influence and access in Washington they accrue through their other jobs.

“He developed important relationships with countries abroad,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a top official in the Carter and Clinton administrations who worked with Farrow during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and who has been deeply involved in memorializing the Holocaust in the United States and abroad.

“It’s not easy to get foreign and local governments to agree with these sites,” he said.

Part of what may be driving the current controversy is the perception that the heritage commission has favored memorializing Jewish sites over non-Jewish ones.

The agency, in the years after its establishment in 1985, compiled lists of properties targeted for preservation belonging to a range of minorities, but more recently the overwhelming majority of its projects are Jewish.

The whistleblower whose complaints initiated the government investigations is Katarina Ryan, the heritage commission’s only full-time employee, who has been on leave since the investigations were launched. Ryan is a Roman Catholic of Polish descent who, sources close to the commission told JTA, clashed with other officials because she wanted more attention paid to memorializing atrocities suffered by non-Jews.

Ryan did not respond to a query through LinkedIn. The Senate staffer said that when Johnson’s committee launched its own queries into the heritage commission’s workings, the committee was not aware of Ryan’s name, much less her ethnicity or religion.

Weiss told JTA in a written response that an emphasis on memorializing Jewish sites was natural, given that other minorities have not been nearly wiped out in Europe.

“Jewish sites are particularly endangered to an extent that sites of most other groups are not because of the Holocaust and because of Communist repression, which annihilated the populations that otherwise would have continued to care for Jewish sites,” she said.

Weiss nonetheless noted a range of non-Jewish sites that have been memorialized through the work of the heritage commission, including Muslim sites in Bulgaria, Roma sites in Poland and Old Believer Christian sites in Lithuania.

Marty Kaplan: Pessimism is the last taboo

It gets worse. 

If you pay attention to the news, the prospects for the future look grim.  The new normal of high unemployment and stagnant wages will likely not turn out to be just a phase.  The next generations may indeed do worse than the ones before them.  Thanks to the Supreme Court, big money will keep tightening its stranglehold on elections and lawmaking.  Financial reform and consumer protection will never survive the onslaught of lobbyists.  Reckless bankers will go on making out like bandits, and the public will always be forced to rescue them.  The Internet, along with cable and wireless, will be controlled by fewer and more-powerful companies. The world will keep staggering from one economic crisis to another.  We will not have the leadership and citizenship we need to kick our dependence on oil.  We will not even keep up with the Kardashians.

Add your own items to the list.  Whatever global threats scare you – climate change, the Middle East, loose nukes, pandemics – and whatever domestic issues haunt you – failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, rising poverty, obesity – the odds are that the honesty, discipline, resources and burden-sharing required for a happy ending will not, like Elijah, show up at our door.

Sure, there’s some good news around, and there are advances ahead.  Gay marriage is legal in New York, and perhaps one day the resistance to it will seem as unfathomable as the opposition to women’s suffrage.  Technology is growing exponentially, and today’s iGizmos will doubtless seem like steam engines tomorrow.  We will some day actually be gone from Afghanistan.  Justices Scalia and Thomas will eventually retire.  French fries or salami will turn out to be good for us, at least for a while.  Some Wall Street slimeballs will be nailed, some good guys will win elections and some little girl will be rescued from a well. 

But it would pretty much take a miracle for our intractable problems to become tractable.  Without one, political polarization is not about to give way to kumbaya.  Cultural coarsening is not going to reverse course.  The middle class will not be resurgent; the gap between rich and poor will not start closing; the plutocrats calling the shots will not cede their power.  No warning on its way to us – no new BP, no next shooting, no future default – will bring us to our senses about the environment, assault weapons or derivatives for any longer than it takes for the next Casey Anthony or Anthony Weiner to come along. 

Politicians, of course, can never say something like this.  They’re selling progress, greatness, can-do.  The only place for pessimism in the public sphere is as a handy foil.  “There are those who say that we can’t solve our problems, that our best days are behind us, that China is the future.  But I say….”  It’s a surefire applause line.  But it’s also a straw man.  There aren’t “those who say” that.  Americans hate pessimism.  We get discouraged, our hope flags, but predicting defeat is inconceivable.  The comeback kids, the triumphant underdogs, the resilient fighters rising to the challenge: that’s who we see in the mirror. 

We place fatalism beyond the pale.  To give up on the possibility of change, to doubt that we’re up to the task, is socially aberrant.  You may fear that we are doomed to be a nation of big babies: we claim to want leaders who’ll face tough choices, but we punish them for actually making them.  You may despair that the rationality required to face up to reality will never overcome the fundamentalism, know-nothingism and magic thinking that has a hammerlock on our national psyche.  You may believe that big money and big media have become so powerful that our sclerotic democratic institutions are inherently incapable of checking them. 

But you can’t admit any of that.  In public, we never let such darkness prevail.  Instead, we work to improve things.  We organize, rally, blog, join movements, work phone banks, ring doorbells, write checks, sign petitions. 

We are not a tragic nation.  If a leader disappoints us, or breaks our hearts, we say it’s just a setback, not a sign that the system itself manufactures impotence and capitulation.  If a problem festers, we cling to the belief that money, know-how and perhaps some sobering wake-up call are all we need to solve it; we don’t dare entertain the notion that there’s something in human nature that’s causing and protracting it.  If social conflict splits us, we diagnose a communication problem, a semantic setback on the road to common ground, a gap that can be bridged by consensus on facts and deliberation on goals; it’s just too painful to think that tribal values impervious to rationality and insusceptible to compromise are the ineluctable driver of our divisions.

I wish I could declare my confidence in our ability to solve our problems without sounding like some candidate who just wants my vote.  But ironic optimism won’t do.  I’m desperate for evidence that we’re prepared to pay for the services we demand, or to subordinate our desires in order to meet our obligations to one another, or to reform our governance so that special interest money, filibusters and the other Washington diseases didn’t sicken the system.  I just wish it didn’t take drinking the can-do Kool Aid to see the glass as half full.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Let’s recognize those who ‘helped’ AIPAC

The crowds at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington this week were as enthusiastic as ever, as the presidential contenders, the secretary of state, the Israeli prime minister and a whole slew of pols, pundits and assorted pontificators paraded by to tell them how important and powerful they are.

Delegates, however, were sent written warnings not to boo, as happened last year when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) criticized the Iraq War. More critically, the group feared the reception Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) might get after a year of rabidly hostile viral e-mails circulating from largely right-wing Jewish sources attacking him as hostile to Israel. The notice made it clear that Obama, like Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is a “strong friend of AIPAC” and Israel. After all, he might be the next president, and this is no time to burn any bridges.

The annual Policy Conference is a gaudy display of political muscle, but there was something missing: an awards ceremony for those who have done the most to advance the pro-Israel lobby’s power and purse. Had there been such honors, these would have been my nominees, the unsung heroes who have seen to it that AIPAC has, as one official told me, “more money than we know what to do with.”

The nominees are:

The U.S. Department of Justice

Federal prosecutors have brought a flimsy case against two AIPAC staffers, accusing them of purloining government secrets to give to the Israeli government. Even the judge is growing weary of the government’s weak case, and after many delays, there are doubts it will ever even get to trial.

The two staffers were accused of doing what everybody else in this town does — trying to find out what is going on at the White House, fathom policies and anticipate decisions. As former presidential press secretary Scott McClellan just revealed in his memoir, even the White House staff is often clueless.

These guys aren’t spies. They were trying to find out what, if anything, the administration had in mind for Iran, and how they could get their two cents in. They were set up as part of the administration’s obsessive pursuit of secrecy and control — hardly the stuff of small-government conservatism and inconsistent with the Republican claim that George W. Bush is the “best pro-Israel president ever.”

Prosecutors and the FBI deserve an award from AIPAC because their indictment of the pair — and subsequently dropped threats to prosecute the organization — were deftly turned into a major fundraising campaign. Even though the staffers were fired and legal assistance initially cut off, the appeals for money kept going out and the checks are still pouring in.

Professors Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer

In the view of Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Walt of Harvard University, AIPAC is the linchpin of a sinister plot by Jewish American supporters of Israel to manipulate U.S. foreign policy in ways that harm this country’s national interest.

In their view, citizens, especially ethnics — which means lobby groups — shouldn’t meddle in foreign policy. Nor should Congress. That should be left to the experts, diplomats and scholars, such as themselves, who’ve been doing such a wonderful job for so long.

With minimal original research, the professors started off with a conclusion and proceeded to gather supporting material to reinforce their views, even when contradicted by the facts. Most perniciously, they argue Jews and the pro-Israel lobby helped push the Bush administration into a catastrophic war in Iraq.

Not only did the professors hand AIPAC another lucrative fundraising campaign theme, but they also enhanced the image of its power, painting it as the colossus astride the Capitol that swatted critics like harmless gnats and intimidated any challengers. In a town where even the perception of power is power, they performed an invaluable service for AIPAC.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The pernicious Iranian president has given AIPAC a cause like no other. Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions would be bad enough, dayenu, but his rabid rhetoric makes him the poster boy for evil.

AIPAC has had great success rallying support for its campaign to combat the threats of the man who declared, “Israel must be wiped off the map.” In recent weeks, he called it a “stinking corpse,” and his foreign minister urged all Muslims to “erase” the Jewish state by “throw[ing] a bucket of water” on it.

Runners-up in this category are Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas’ Khalid Mashal, whose own threats to eradicate Israel have helped solidify bipartisan U.S. support for Israel.

The Arab Media

They give AIPAC the best publicity the group could hope for, and it’s all free. They spread the myth of its power to every nook and cranny of the planet where people wish the worst for Israel, and they tell all who will read or listen that Israel has this “powerful,” “influential,” “unchallenged” lobby that controls U.S. policy through a subservient executive branch and members of Congress who are “card-carrying members” of AIPAC.

None of these hapless actors wants to increase the power of a pro-Israel lobby they despise — but in a twist of the law of unintended consequences, that’s exactly what they have done. And AIPAC, never shy about taking advantage of opportunities, has made the most of it — as this week’s lavish gala at the Washington Convention Center, not to mention the group’s new building near Capitol Hill, demonstrate.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is Jewish World Review’s Washington correspondent.

Genocide survivors turn into lobbyists for Darfur

Eli Wiesel and George Clooney have spoken out about it. Protesters have rallied against it. Even an online game seeks to draw attention to the ongoing genocide in Sudan’s Darfur.

Now, a local group is taking a different approach to turning the world’s eyes toward the Sudanese government-sponsored violence that has left hundreds of thousands dead, more than 2 million displaced, villages destroyed and tens of thousands of women beaten and raped.

Jewish World Watch, a consortium of 44 synagogues in Southern California committed to fighting genocide, has decided that it is time to put a face to the anonymous victims.

Last week, the group assembled survivors of attempted genocides around the world, including the Holocaust and the mass killings of Bosnians, Cambodians, Armenians and Kurdish Iraqis. Volunteers and survivors boarded a couple of vans and embarked on what they called a “caravan of peace.”

Timed to coincide with the opening of the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly, Jewish World Watch arranged for the survivors to meet with diplomats from seven U.N. member countries.

One group of survivors met with officials from Great Britain, Greece and France in the morning, while another group met with representatives from Spain, Argentina, South Africa and Peru in the afternoon. All the countries but Spain and South Africa are members of the U.N. Security Council, which has the power to make decisions that U.N. member countries are required to carry out.

As the first group gathered in Brentwood, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, president of Jewish World Watch, reminded the team of its mission.

The Security Council has authorized the deployment of peacekeepers to Darfur, she explained, but the Sudanese government has refused to accept the troops. The goal for the day, she said, was to ask diplomats, “if Sudan continues to say no, will the United Nations send peacekeepers anyway?”

“If not, there will be another 100,000 … dead in a few weeks,” Kamenir-Reznik said.

Lucy Deutsch, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor who was sent to Auschwitz at age 14, said she was ready for the challenge.

“I want them to urge their governments to do something with Darfur immediately. Now. Even if they have to jump on their desks in the U.N.,” Deutsch said. “The people in Darfur shouldn’t have the same end that we had in Auschwitz.”

Deutsch climbed into the van along with Chhang Song, a 67-year-old survivor of Cambodia’s killing fields, and Luqman Barwari, a 44-year-old former refugee from Southern Kurdistan, or northern Iraq.

Kamenir-Reznik took a seat at the front and had everyone put on green wristbands, which read: Do Not Stand Idly By — Save Darfur.

The group’s first stop: the British consulate. In the lobby, Kamenir-Reznik said she believed the day’s work would make a difference.

“Advocacy involves taking many different strategies at the same time,” she said. “I don’t feel at all demoralized. I really believe … everything you do will build upon everything else.”

And then, there they were, face-to-face with British Vice Consul Angus Mackay.
“Here we have the different faces of genocide from the past 100 years,” Kamenir-Reznik told him. “Not only were they victims of horrible governments,” she said, “but they were also victims of the world standing by.”

The survivors introduced themselves and told their stories. “Auschwitz and Darfur are melting together in my mind,” Deutsch said.

“It’s about time to take out the English hammer and knock some sense into the U.N. to act immediately,” she said.

Mackay promised to relay the group’s concerns to Washington and London. He said he would do some research and send along the British government’s latest policy statements about Darfur.

So far, so good, the group concluded, and it was on to the next meeting, at the Greek consulate. Consul General Dimitris Caramitsos-Tziras greeted the group warmly and spoke with a sense of resignation, or perhaps, realism.

“The trouble spots around the world are growing in number, and so the demand for help is also growing,” he said. The high-demand has become “a serious strain on human resources.” Although Greece holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, “one country alone cannot influence the balance in a high-powered body like the Security Council,” he said.

Still, the diplomat took notes. He, too, pledged to pass along the group’s message “to the authorities” and respond with feedback.

“We’re listening,” he said, “and hopefully, we’ll be acting.”

For Kamenir-Reznik, a promise to listen and relay the message was enough. But Holocaust survivor Deutsch expressed frustration.

“I am not a politician nor a diplomat,” she said, “but if I would be a U.N. member, you would hear my voice screaming, not just talking.”

Where were the strong, impassioned words she wanted to hear? Why was no one screaming?

Finally, it was time to meet with a diplomat from France, a country that, like the United Kingdom, holds a permanent seat on the Security Council.
Francois-Xavier Tilliette, deputy consul general, welcomed the group into his office.

“France is very concerned,” Tilliette said. “We need an urgent solution…. We must not turn a blind eye to this crime against humanity.”

Deutsch smiled. “He used the words I wanted to hear,” she said after the meeting.

The morning’s work complete, the group offered its reflections on the day. “I would give up a week of work for this,” said the Kurdish Barwari, a scientist at Amgen.

“If we can save one person,” Deutsch said, “we’ve achieved our goal.”

An Open Letter to Harvard’s Stephen Walt

At an Aug. 28 Washington forum hosted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy Center and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago expanded on their paper “The Israel Lobby,” first published as a faculty working research paper at Harvard.
That paper charged supporters of Israel with undue influence on American policy. At the forum, the two accused Israel of working in concert with the U.S. government to find a pretext for war with Hezbollah.

Reports of the forum prompted Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former student of Walt’s, to pen this letter to his one-time mentor.

Dear Steve:

I’ve been meaning to write you since I read your and John Mearsheimer’s paper, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Coincidentally (or,
perhaps in your view, not coincidentally), I read your paper on the plane on the way back from a policy conference in Israel this spring. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We met when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. You were an up-and-coming assistant professor of politics, a devotee of Berkeley professor Ken Waltz’s realist school of international politics. I looked to you as one of my intellectual and career mentors. We were both influenced by Mearsheimer, who at the time had published important work on the balance of conventional forces in Europe.

As you may recall, I focused on superpower arms control. You looked over my shoulder for my junior paper on SALT I and for my senior thesis on verification policy (to this day, I wish I had taken your advice and written instead about former U.S. negotiator Paul Nitze).

When I left Princeton, you recommended MIT’s political science Ph.D. program to me — and me to them. While I deferred my entry there (and later opted for law school instead), you and I spent countless hours together in Washington, D.C., during your sabbatical engaged in a running critique of the Reagan administration’s ideologically driven foreign policy initiatives.

If I had to distill the many lessons you taught me about international political analysis over the years, they would come down to this — be rational. Focus on interests, not ideology. Be logical, and don’t be swayed by partisanship, emotions or hidden agendas.

It was thus with great dismay that I read your and professor Mearsheimer’s paper. It has by now been well explored and debunked elsewhere. For example, Dennis Ross has explained the paper’s many foreign policy misconceptions (“The Mind-Set Matters,” Foreign Policy, July/August 2006), while Eliot Cohen has explained how the paper’s “obsessive beliefs about Jews” are consistent with anti-Semitism (“Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic,” Washington Post, April 5, 2006). I will only add that the paper came as a tremendous disappointment to this former student, because you and professor Mearsheimer so clearly neglected the lessons you taught me about academic rigor.

To take just one example, you suggest that radical Islamic terrorists would be less likely to attack the United States if we reduced our level of support for Israel. This fundamentally misapprehends the causes and goals of global jihadism. As Lawrence Wright demonstrates in “The Looming Tower,” terrorists such as Osama Bin-Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were radicalized principally in reaction to moderate Arab governments, such as Egypt. Indeed, these religiously motivated terrorists’ main goal is to institute strict Islamic governments in the nations where Islam currently and previously flourished, establishing a caliphate stretching from China to Spain.

Do these terrorists also wish to destroy Israel? Sure. Is U.S. support for Israel the reason we find ourselves in their cross-hairs? Far from it — indeed, Bin-Laden and Al-Zawahiri largely ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, due to the Palestinians’ track record (until recently) of secular leadership.

Yet on account of my respect for you, I was still considering filing all of these academic differences under the category of “let’s agree to disagree” — until last month, when you made it personal.

According to the Washington Post, you and professor Mearsheimer headlined an event last month sponsored by a Muslim group with a spotty record for objectivity. The Post noted that you singled out Jewish administration officials for having “attachments” that drive their views on American foreign policy.
Steve, I want you to understand what a tremendous insult this is. With your strong personal encouragement, I have gone on to a career in our nation’s service. In 20 years, I have served in each of the three branches of the federal government, at times in sensitive positions, and have twice been elected locally. I have continued my focus on national security issues and now devote much of my efforts to homeland security and local preparedness.

Do I, as an American Jew, have to look over my shoulder at you the rest of my career, wondering when the day will come when you question my loyalty? When will I say or do something that you will determine emanates from my “attachments” and not from the skill sets you helped me develop?

Steve, just what academic rigor do you employ before leveling charges of disloyalty against fellow Americans?

And then I reached the penultimate line of the Post article: “Before leaving for an interview with Al Jazeera, Mearsheimer accepted a button proclaiming ‘Walt & Mearsheimer Rock. Fight the Israel Lobby.'”

Steve, I will proudly continue my public and intellectual pursuits in the manner you taught me two decades ago. Please let me know when you are again ready to practice what you used to preach.

Jack Weiss is a Los Angeles city councilman.

When It’s Federal Aid, Pork Isn’t Treif

When it comes to politics, even the Jews want pork. American Jewish communities and some national organizations have become well versed in getting their share of millions of dollars available for social service programs, medical research or other community essentials.

A search of the 2004 omnibus spending bill under consideration in Congress this month found 37 earmarks with the word "Jewish" in the name, amounting to $9,973,000 in appropriations. If you include the terms "Hebrew" and "Sephardic," it climbs to 41 appropriation earmarks and $10,723,000. Many other projects of importance to local Jewish communities may not have identifiable names and could be buried in the vast spending document.

Getting funding for a project takes massive time, energy and, often, money. Many Jewish communities send representatives to Washington to make the pitch directly to their lawmakers, as well as members of congressional appropriations committees. Some hire Washington lobbyists to make the necessary introductions for them.

Next week will be an important one for the budget process. In its first session of the year, the Senate will vote on the omnibus spending package for 2004, because it did not pass all 13 spending bills before the end of last year’s session.

The omnibus bill lumps all appropriations that were not approved by Congress into one piece of legislation, and contains $328.1 billion in discretionary spending. It passed the House Dec. 8 by a vote of 242-176.

President Bush’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20 will launch the budget process for 2005. The president will lay out his fiscal priorities in the speech, before officially submitting his budget proposal early next month.

Garnering money for one’s local Jewish community depends in large part on the influence of local congressmen. Five of the Jewish appropriations next year are in Pennsylvania, amounting to $950,000, in part because Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

Jewish officials bristle when they hear the projects described as "pork," a term used to describe pet projects in a lawmaker’s congressional district.

"One man’s pork is another’s essential program," said Reva Price, the Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

For example, the Jewish Association for Residential Care (JARC) in suburban Detroit received $500,000 in 2003 for its facility for people with developmental disabilities. It is likely to receive an additional $150,000 this year.

Joyce Keller, JARC’s executive director, said her program provides an essential service and shouldn’t be lumped in with more frivolous appropriations. She cited one notorious example of Washington pork, a study on the sex lives of fireflies.

"These are the needs of people that are not being met by whatever states have to offer," she said of her patients.

Keller’s organization began pursuing a federal appropriation because Michigan’s state mental health funds were not properly funding its patients, many of whom are mentally disabled. It hired a Washington lobbyist, met with Michigan congressmen and both senators and hoped for the best.

"We had no idea, and we were very ecstatic that we were successful," Keller said. "We knew it was a gamble."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) last month touted six Jewish community projects that were funded in the appropriations process. Among them were allocations to the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn and two allocations for the Sephardic Bikur Holim Center in Brooklyn.

Brett Heimov, Nadler’s Washington chief of staff, said the office receives 15 to 20 requests from the Jewish community each year and forwards them to the appropriators.

"In 11 years here, I’ve seen maybe a dozen projects that are just stupid," he said. "Most are worthwhile."

Heimov said appropriators, who have the final say on what projects receive money, prefer programs that already are advanced in their development, giving a better sense of how the money will be spent.

A lawmaker touting a project may go it alone or may seek additional support when he sends a letter to members of the appropriations committee. Eight lawmakers signed a letter in October to the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee seeking $543,375 for the Center for Jewish History in New York’s archival preservation project. The center was allocated $328,000.

While some Jewish organizations seek money individually, others group their requests. The United Jewish Communities (UJC) helped win $4,320,000 for 19 Jewish communities for naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs, which seek to assist elderly living independently in areas with large aging populations.

Robert Goldberg, UJC’s assistant legislative director, said the organization is able to serve as a conduit between the local communities and lawmakers who know the value of NORCs.

"We are the ones that have done the legwork with the appropriations committees and educated them on NORCs as a community-based service," he said.

Jewish communities in big cities often need less assistance, because they have more resources and are more familiar with the process.

The need for federal appropriations is growing in the Jewish community. Budget crunches in many states, as well as decreases in social service block grants that give federal money to the states to distribute, have led to a decrease in the availability of other public funding sources, Price said.

It is hard to pin down some of the ingredients for a successful bid for funds. Communities with Republican lawmakers may be served better, because the Republican leaders of the divided Congress have been reticent to provide funds for Democratic districts, Jewish officials said.

Some suggest that having a Jewish lawmaker in one’s district helps. Others say that Jewish lawmakers, concerned about a backlash, try not to have too many Jewish projects funded in their districts.

One Democratic aide said he believed Republicans may be working to give more assistance to Jewish communities as part of their efforts to court the Jewish vote in 2004.

Price said Jews do no better or worse than other interests lobbying for pork.

"Not everything asked for is gotten," she observed.